Compassion and Selfishness

Sara gave me a book that she had to read for class called “Simpler Living, Compassionate Life”.  I’m just starting it, but I was struck by something I read in the introduction.  One of the contributors was writing about how he had spent some time watching cable TV in order to write about the dominant message he found.  What he realized is that our culture inundates us with the notion the of self-centeredness that each of us is the center of the universe.  I think I would agree that I’ve seen this as a dominant narrative.  Especially in advertising, I’m constantly subjected to this message that I am the most important person.  But it isn’t only in a positive way, e.g. just saying that I’m important or worthwhile, it’s also in negative ways.  Think of ads where you’re made to feel self-conscious about your breath, or your B.O., or about your body in some other way.  Self-consciousness is still self-centeredness.  He went on to contrast what he saw as a dominant narrative of Christian faith (and many other religions) which is one of selflessness.  Of losing yourself in order to find yourself.  I think of Jesus saying “Those who lose their lives, will save them.”

I think there is a lot of wisdom in that, but I was feeling somewhat unsettled by the idea.  Part of it comes from the Seminary, where there is a big emphasis on “self-care”.  In caring professions, there is a tendency for people to embrace that idea of selflessness in an unhealthy way.  They end up treating themselves pretty badly, and sacrificing their own needs for the sake of others.  The idea of self-care is really just giving people permission to take care of themselves as well.  I had never thought of it much beyond agreeing that it was a good idea, but after reading that passage, I began to think of it in a different way.  Before I had thought of self-care as a kind of concession to that self-centeredness that we’ve all been raised in, that it’s a tightrope balancing act between caring for others while still caring for your needs as well.  People talk about it using a metaphor of keeping batteries charged, or refueling your gas tank.

The only problem with that idea is that it doesn’t really let you embrace this idea of selflessness.  We’re still self-centered but simply adapting to a selfless lifestyle.  Like we’re astronauts wearing space suits exploring some alien landscape, we have to keep heading back to the shuttle to refill our air tanks.  But I realized that you can think of self-care in a different way.  If I begin with the assumption that I will have care and compassion for everyone and not be self-centered that means I can’t treat myself badly either.  So I can, in each moment, look at my own actions and say “is this what’s best for this person?”.

As an example, imagine you have an overweight friend who your really care about.  And for one day, you can see everything they do and decide what they should do with their day.  You see your friend come home after work and plop down on the couch and turn on the TV, just like they do every day.  If you could decide for them, is this what you’d choose?  Maybe they could spend that free time going for a walk, or even just getting up and doing some chores around the house.  Maybe you’d want your friend to spend the evening making a delicious and healthy meal instead of being a couch potato and microwaving some junk food.  What would you choose for someone you really care about?

But here is the really strange thing.  You have that power.  There is a person in your life you really care about, and you have the power to control every action they take, that person is you.  So self-care doesn’t need to be selfish, it’s really about having care and compassion for yourself.  Choosing what’s best for this person you care about.  Maybe it isn’t being a couch potato that’s the problem, maybe it’s working too much.  If you had a friend who was constantly sacrificing their own needs and working too much, what choice would you make for them?  Most of us would choose to give them rest, maybe volunteer to help them or find someone else to even out the load.

One think I have noticed in myself at times that I’ve been really organized is that it feels like there are fewer barriers to doing things.  When my life is in chaos, it seems really hard to do even simple things like tidying up my room, or making something nice for dinner.  I think we put psychological barriers up around simple tasks sometimes and they feel overwhelming.  But, when I think of it this way, as choosing what’s best for someone I care about, it seems like a lot of those barriers disappear.  If I were making choices for a friend, I don’t have to take on their feelings of insecurity, their fear of failure, or all the other million invisible impediments our minds create.  If I’m really choosing what’s best for myself.  If I’m living selflessly without living ascetically, I can ignore some of those things in my own mind, and choose what’s best.

The Syropheonician Woman

Here’s my sermon from a couple of weeks ago.

Sept 9th Sermon

Holden Village

Life has finally settled down into a rhythm where I feel like I can write an update.  I graduated from seminary on May 18th and moved most of my stuff into my parents’ attic and my brother’s basement.  On June 2nd, I moved up to Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington state where I’ll be spending the next year working as a cook.  There are a few reasons that I decided to do this, but I think one of the biggest is just to give myself a little time and space after Seminary but before beginning the final step of the process of becoming a pastor.  It seemed like one of my only chances to spend a year up here, and so far I feel like I have made the right decision.

But I didn’t just pick the kitchen work at random, I want to explore that work as part of my discernment about my call.  Not that I mean I might decide to become a cook instead of a pastor, but I want to explore the interplay between those two roles.  A big part of that, which I hope to explore here, is the idea of the communion meal as an actual meal.  I’ve been ruminating on my own frustrations with church and worship that I’ve felt most of my life and I think part of it is that I don’t exactly understand what worship is for.  I have heard various explanation, but they generally have a theological basis that is fairly shaky.  In fact, quite often the people who are most strident about an emphasis on Grace as a free gift will have a perspective on why we worship that seems to contradict that theology.  I’m sure I’ll write much more about this over this next year, but part of what has been coming to the surface for me in these first couple of weeks is that I find God’s presence is just as palpable in a meal shared with friends as in a service of singing and readings.  When I work the evening shift, my feet are often too sore to stand during vespers, so I sometimes just sit and think about the contrast between the hectic busyness of the kitchen and the energetic conversations happening in the dining hall with the solemn and pious atmosphere of a worship service.  I wonder what Jesus would have preferred?  In the bible, he was a rabble rouser at the synagogue and the temple and he commanded his disciples to gather and eat and drink in his name.  Is it so radical to think of meals lovingly prepared and shared together in Jesus’ name as my primary worship?


One note about my blogging here at Holden.  I get the sense that I’m going to write a lot when I have time to and not much when I’m working, but I’d also like to keep a regular schedule of posting.  So,  I’m going to write a few posts ahead of time and set it to automatically post at least once a week, and maybe more frequently then that.  Also, I’d appreciate your comments and reflections in reply.  Part of the fun of this format of writing is that it gives me a chance to have dialogue about these ideas.

Hagia Sophia

I wrote this short story for my art history class.  I hope you enjoy it.

As we approached the city, I tried to keep my expression solemn like the other monks, but I couldn’t help revealing a bit of my excitement. The best that I could manage when the abbot walked by was a slightly cheerful expression, which caused him to frown. How could I contain myself? We had traveled so far from the monastery on cold muddy roads, and here we were approaching the holy city. Soon we will be standing in Hagia Sophia! As the abbot gave me another sideways look, I decided to return my gaze to the path and return my focus to my prayers. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I had tried to keep the prayer in my mind paced with my footsteps since we left the monastery, but sometimes my attention wandered. Now was certainly one of those times and yet the steady beat of my footsteps seemed to keep the prayer going even when I was distracted. When we first spotted the spires of the city and I strained to see the dome of the church, I could still feel my mind returning to that rhythm as though God was pulling me a little closer toward the city with each word. The city looked so close, but the abbot assured us that there would be a few more hours of walking left and we would be lucky to make it before sunset. I certainly didn’t want to delay us, so I tried to keep up my pace.

We arrived just as the sky was showing the first colors of the sunset. We had seen Hagia Sophia from the edge of the city, but once we entered the winding streets it seemed to disappear from view. I was sure that we were lost when suddenly the dome appeared towering over us at the end of a long narrow street. The solemn pious faces of the other monks showed signs of muted anticipation, even the abbot seemed to be smiling under his long gray beard. My prayer seemed to be going much faster as we all sped up our footsteps. Closer and closer until the air has a faint smell of incense and the huge building looms over us. How could anyone build something so big? Surely God had sent angels to help them. As we got closer the smell of incense grew stronger and all the pain in my feet and back seemed to disappear. Suddenly, I could hear the faint hum of the priests chanting. It was so quiet and seemed so far away but it called us all in.

Soon we were walking up the main steps. We crossed through the outer doors and I could feel a tingling sensation beginning at the crown of my head. As we stepped through the smell of the incense and the sound of the chanting grew much stronger and I began to feel that tingling spread to the rest of my body. The sound felt like waves breaking on the shore of my body and every breath made that feeling stronger. My tired eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness inside and for the first few moments it felt like I was floating in darkness like a boat on a lake at night. I began to see light coming from beyond the large doors ahead of us and I saw a reflection of the windows on the marble floor.

The floor! Was I carried away in my fantasy of floating? Stretching out ahead of me, the marble floor formed long rippling waves and it felt like a current was pulling us ever forward. Now the smell of the incense and the sound of the priests chanting filled my other senses and beyond the doors I could see a crowd of people gathered. What were they doing here, floating on this same river? For a moment I returned to myself and realized that we had made it in time for evening prayer! The next moment, we stepped through the doors. I heard the abbot and a couple of the monks gasp as we all looked toward the ceiling. There were all the saints watching over us and far away above the Sanctuary I would see the Theotokos and Christ watching the whole assembly.
My attention returned to the liturgy, but I had never heard it chanted like this. The words seemed to hang in the air forever like the incense and my whole body could feel every syllable. The priest was chanting the gospel from a tall pulpit in the middle of the room, so far away but I could hear him as though we were back in our tiny little chapel at the monastery. It was as though God’s word was being whispered directly into my ears, but at the same time I could feel that it was coming from far away. I lost myself again for a moment, feeling like my feet weren’t even touching the ground, but that I was carried up on the sound. Soon my eyes reached the dome, and I could see the colors of the setting sun coming through the windows. As I gazed for a moment, lost in the colors I thought I saw the dome moving. The sound and smells were coming from all around me and my spirit seemed to float up into that dome as it rotated around me.
I don’t know how long I stood there looking up, but eventually I noticed that the chanting had stopped. I could still hear the last note in the air, it seemed to be fading forever into the background of footsteps and the rustling clothes of the other worshipers. The abbot and the other monks had the same expression on their faces that I did, total and profound amazement. Here in this earthly temple it was as though we had heard the voice of the angels in God’s heavenly temple. The light was beginning to fade as the sun set, and we found our way to the door along with the other people there, guided by a few flickering candles. As we moved away, I found my prayer returning with each footstep. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Now the prayer seemed to flow out of me in abundance because God had filled me with so much in this amazing place. We visited many more times before we left the city and made our way home. After that, I could always see a little smile hiding behind the abbot’s beard, and he never chided the monks again for not looking solemn enough.

Autopilot brain

As I’ve been getting used to having more control of my time with GTD, I’ve found an interesting phenomenon that I call “autopilot brain”.  Essentially the way I think of it is that the brain (or perhaps the will) has a couple of modes.  In one mode I have the ability to dream up any idea or action, figure out what needs to be done.  In that mode I can write down huge lists of things that I’d like to have happen, or I can sit and contemplate what I need to do.  But, it is very hard to actually do anything when I’m in that mindset.  The most I can usually manage is to write the things down or record them in some other way.

The second mode is what I call “autopilot brain”.  It requires almost no willpower because I’ve already defined what needs to be done, so I just follow those decisions.  Sometime it takes a little more work because I have a lot of options, but it is within a world of narrow possibilities.  The great thing is that it is so much easier to do all those things, I don’t need to “get motivated” or “find the energy” I just start rolling along and as I complete each action I find a bit more energy for the rest.  When I have a long list of things to crank through and don’t feel like thinking too much, it’s nice to just start at the top and trust that I was right when I decided to put each item on the list.

There are probably other modes, reflection, contemplation, etc. and I even think there are times when I can do both at the same time which I would call “congruent” mode.  I think that I may be better than the average person at that congruent mode, which is why I was able to survive so long without any kind of organizational system.  But the problem is that it can be very stifling and limiting to try to “do both” or to force it.  I think it’s much better to shift back and forth and then periodically click into the flow of both doing things and deciding what to do in the same moment.  It may actually be more beneficial to switch back and forth because the non-obvious but still important things get done.

I still haven’t figured out the rhythm of how this will all work with school.  It seems like I’m always coming up to the wire with reading, I’d like to find a way to get just a little ahead.  It just takes a lot of time so I’m often tempted to get a few other quick things checked off my list instead of doing the reading which is arguably one of the most important tasks I have these days.

Approval Essay Part 4

Part IV: Person in Ministry
In light of all that you have written in the preceding sections, write a concluding essay in
which you reflect upon yourself as a person in ministry. What strengths and weaknesses
regarding your leadership have come to light for you? How might you build
upon your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses? How do you assess and evaluate
yourself as a ministry leader? How do you seek to learn from your mistakes and to
correct them? How do you imagine you will grow in your leadership capacity during
your first three years under call?

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Approval Essay Part 3

Part III: Integration of Leadership and Theology
Briefly describe a specific incident or event that might occur in the contextual situation you have envisioned in which you might be called upon to exercise ministry leadership.
For example: a council, committee or congregational meeting surfaces a specific issue related to the contextual situation you have described; an event occurs that brings, in a new way, some aspect of the contextual situation to the attention of the people among whom you serve; a question or decision prompts controversy related to the contextual situation.
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Approval Essay Part 2

Part II: Theological Proclamation and Teaching
Present a sermon you preached related to the situation you’ve described, or compose a sermon indicating how you might preach in that situation.

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Core Values Meditation

This is a meditation practice that I created for myself as part of my GTD weekly review.  I already have my list of values, which is fairly static but I’ve adapted it for use with a group who may not have written out such a list.

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GTD and Weekly Review

The last couple of months I’ve been getting back in to Getting Things Done (aka GTD), which is a set of personal organization methods.  If you’re interested, check out their site, read the book and try it out.  I used GTD at work before I started Seminary, but never really implemented it in my personal life so it was very hard to adapt to the different demands of being a student.

A couple of months ago, I reread the book and actually tried to follow it as closely as I could and it has done nothing short of completely revolutionizing my life.  That sounds like an exaggeration, but I really mean it.  Not only am I dramatically more productive, but I feel happier, more dynamic, confident, responsible, patient, present for other people, etc.

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